The Art of Grazing

Those of us who depend exclusively on grass to feed and finish our beeves are simultaneously weighing soil and plant health against our desire to produce appropriate weight gain and good health in our mother and calf herd. What is best for our grass crop is not always aligned with our growth and health goals in our beef crop and the reverse is true as well. Balancing the two is where the art of grazing comes into play.

Consider the prime examples of that interaction between our two crops - grass and beef - and how that might maximize one while sacrificing the other if the two goals tilt too far in favor of one over the other.

“Mob grazing” is a very popular technique these days. The concept encourages extreme fencing of the grazing areas so that cattle are led daily through a series of very confined pastures. The goal is to give the herd access to fresh grasses in crowded conditions, then move them to the next confined sub-pasture. The herd may move as many as 3 times a day. This method maximizes pasture health in three ways: only the top portion of the grass is nipped by the herd, leaving plenty of sun-catching blades for quicker re-growth; manure, our natural fertilizer, is concentrated rather than spread over a large area; and the grasses are trampled into the soil by the hooves of the herd, increasing the organic matter in the soil. This approach maximizes grass.

So mob-grazing is great for the soil’s health. What do the cattle think about it? They are not fond of it because they are constantly operating in crowded conditions and always moving from one place another. They like some breathing room and some regular housing, just like we do. Space and normality in other words. And the back of the mob is not doing nearly so well as the leaders. Most of the herd are left with a feeling of anxiety. Clay, a/k/a the “cow whisperer”, taught me this in our earlier days of experimentation with our grazing methodology. We were getting good grass results but slower beef growth; our system was out of balance. One crop, beef, was sacrificed for the other, grass.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have let the herd roam over huge areas of the farm when it was divided into larger pastures. The herd likes that but it has the opposite effect on the grass. Beeves like some grasses over others and they particularly like the young grasses as they are just starting their growth cycle. When left to large areas, they will go around eating their “ice cream” grasses and then make their second rotation on the same grasses as the grass is just starting to re-grow. Not good for the grass to be nipped down when it is so young. Its growth is stunted while the less desirable grasses thrive.

Our approach today: we now have a total of 6 pastures dedicated to the herd’s use, having divided the largest pasture into 3 parts. (Over time, we will further divide in half 2 more pastures for a total of 8 that are of about the same size.) We will experiment with occupying these pastures 2 weeks at a time, giving them many weeks of recovery before being grazed again. We think that is a good starting point, and will make adjustments as we watch the balance between grass and beef growth.

There are other factors to consider which I have not detailed here but that is the short course on the art of grazing.